He is the most famous person on the planet – and the most divisive. Equally loved and abhorred, it is impossible not to have an opinion about the brash, Twitter-loving 45th President of the United States. Yet, few people truly understand what makes Trump Trump. By going back into his past, we are be able to gain valuable insight into the vast complexities that make up the man. In this week’s Biographics, we get up to speed on the Donald before he took up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
A Privileged Start
Donald John Trump was born on June 14th, 1946, the fourth of five children to Fred Trump and Mary MacLeod. Donald’s grandfather, also named Frederick had migrated in 1885 from Germany. He brought with him a reputation as one of the finest builders of his generation. Frederick helped to change the face of Queens with his building projects, which primarily consisted of the construction of solid though basic brick rental apartments. Fred followed his father’s path and became a prominent residential developer. By the time that Donald was coming of of his teen years, his father had amassed more than 27,000 apartments in such Brooklyn suburbs as Flatbush, Sheep Heads Bay, Bensonhurst and Brighton Beach. He also had extensive properties in the Queens neighborhoods of Coney Island and Jamaica Estates.
In addition to his residential housing portfolio, Fred moved into commercial investment. During the Depression years of the Thirties, he built ‘Trump Market’, which was a supermarket built on the concept of ‘serve yourself and save.’ With war looming he also got into construction on military bases.
Donald’s mother, Mary MacLeod Trump, was of Scottish heritage. She met Frank in the early 1930’s as a teenager.When they married in 1936 she was just 24. They settled into a 23-room house in Queens. The house was extravagant, with a colonial style portico frame entrance and six imposing white marble pillars. Fred’s two cadillacs, FCT1 and FCT2, were parked in the driveway. The Trumps were one of the few families to have an intercom system installed in their home, not to mention a chauffeur and personal butler.
Mrs. Trump was a philanthropist who became passionately involved in a number of causes that were close to her heart. She was the main driving force of the Ladies Helper of Jamaica facility as well as the Jamaica Day Care Nursery. Mary was also an ardent supporter of the National Kidney Establishment of New York and the Group Maintstreaming Partners of Incredible Neck, New York, which provided help for people who were crippled.
Of all of his children, young Donald showed the most interest in his father’s business ventures. As a result, Fred would sometimes take the boy onto construction sites with him. As he developed his own personality, Donald gained a reputation as a bully. His parents were lax in imposing discipline upon him. On one occasion the Trump’s neighbor, Martha Burnham, came home to find the four year old Donald throwing stones at her son Dennis. Donald had apparently targeted Dennis as an easy mark for his venom. Martha warned her son to stay away from the nasty Trump boy.
By the time he was eight, Donald was the leader of a group of young thugs who would ride around Queens on their bicycles, yelling out insults to people and stopping to deal with other youngsters who they didn’t like the look of. He was known for saying whatever he thought and acting impulsively.
Fred enrolled Donald at a private education facility in Forest Hills called Kew Forest School. Fred happened to be on the Board of Trustees of the school. This fact seems to have emboldened Donald in his wayward behaviors. Taking the lead among a bunch of boys who were constant troublemakers, he would pull girl’s hair, purposely bump into other student’s desks and talk out of turn in class.
Donald’s grades were mediocre at best. This was mainly due to lack of application rather than ability, a situation that greatly frustrated his teachers. However, on the playground and sports field he displayed considerable ability. His favorite gym game was dodgeball. He displayed great dexterity in avoiding balls that were thrown at him to be the last man standing. Outdoors, he excelled at baseball. He was a talented player and a fierce competitor. As a sixth grader, his batting power was exceptional. When he came up to bat, the defending side would have to extend its fielders way out in order to handle his daunting right arm swing.
One Saturday morning, when he was twelve years old, Donald and his friend Peter Brandt jumped on the train to Manhattan. Such an excursion had not been authorized by Donald’s parents. Getting off at Fifth Avenue and 53rd, they spent the day strolling through Central Park, buying curiosities at novelty stores and wandering among the homeless. One of the items that Donald purchased was a switchblade knife.
It was months later when Fred discovered the knife and the story of Donald’s unauthorized trip to the city was uncovered. Fred was outraged. He finally came to the realization that Donald was out of control. Something had to be done.
Fred decided that his fourth son was in dire need of some external discipline. He enrolled Donald at Rosier Military Boarding School, about 70 miles away. There would be no more comfortable living in the mansion and swanning around the neighborhood for Donald. Fred acted swiftly, not even giving his son time to farewell his friends.
Life was indeed vastly different at the military school.The boys were required to wear a uniform that consisted of a thick fleece pullover and pants. An alarm woke them up early in the morning and their entire day was regulated by the clock.
Donald’s life was now controlled by Theodore Dobias, the hands-on school administrator. Dobias was a non-nonsense World War Two veteran who demanded excellence from his new recruits. He knew that many of the boys were sent to him to toughen them up and impose discipline and he took that responsibility very seriously.
All of this was a serious shock to the system for Donald. His initial reaction was resentment and a natural tendency to buck the system. He soon racked up a number of charges,including not making his bed and properly cleaning the sink. Yet administrator Dobias saw something else in young Trump. The boy was incredibly driven with a desire to be number one.
Realizing that bucking the system was only going to get him in deeper trouble, Donald began trying to follow the rules. The biggest improvement was with regard to his personal orderliness. He won awards for the cleanliness of his personal area. His orderliness bordered on the obsessive, winning him the nickname ‘Mr Fastidious.’
Donald’s loud mouthed bluster quieted down as discipline was injected into his system. He became soft spoken with an air of self confidence. He developed some good friendships, despite generally being seen as cocky and talking too much about his father’s wealth.
During his senior year, Donald was made a Company Captain. This put him in a position of oversight over younger boys. He inspected their personal space and was responsible for generally keeping them in order. His reputation was such that he very rarely had to raise his voice at his charges. A simple stare, sometimes accompanied by a raised eyebrow, were enough to impart his displeasure.
In his position as Company Captain, Trump proved himself to be an effective delegator. This developed to the extent that he would give the job of inspection of the boys under his command to others while he retired to his room to recline on his bed. This practice soon came to the attention of Administrator Dobias, who was less than impressed. He removed Trump from his role as Company Captain and gave him a school administrative position instead.
Donald framed the new position as a promotion for his stellar job in his previous role. Following his graduation from Rosier at the age of 18, he enrolled at Fordham University in the Bronx to study rel estate. He had determined to follow his father into the world of real estate development. Of course he was going to do it bigger and better than his old man, and to do that he figured that he needed a real estate degree.
In 1966, after two years at Fordham, Donald transferred to the University of Wharton Business College. Here he was out of place. While coming from a background of money, he didn’t have the Ivy League breeding of those he rubbed shoulders with on campus. He was rough and obtuse and soon proved himself to be the proverbial round hole in a landscape of square pegs. On the first day of his real estate paper, the lecturer asked every student why they had decided to study real estate. When his turn came, Donald stood up and declared that he was going to be the king of the New York city real estate business.
Joining the Family Business
Trump graduated from Wharton in 1968, returning to new York with a degree in Real Estate. At this time he was eligible for the draft to serve his country in Vietnam. However a September, 1968 physical exam resulted in a medical suspension due to bone goads in his heels.
Setting himself up in an apartment in Queens, Trump began working for his father in early 1969. From the very start, he felt a deep seated need to prove to his father that he was a supremely talented real estate man.
The Trump way of doing business was called into question in 1973 when a handful of potential tenants took a class action suit out against the company claiming racial discrimination in violation of the Fair Housing Act. The case was impossible to prove, however, and the Trump organization paid a small settlement without admission of guilt.
Around this same time, Donald was promoted to president of the company. His first act was to rename it. The former Elizabeth Trump and Son became The Trump Organization. One of his next moves was to hire aggressive attorney Roy Cohn. Cohn had a reputation as a bulldog lawyer. If anyone dared to file a suit against those who he worked for, he would go all out to destroy them.
In 1975, Donald meet Ivana Maria Zelnickova. She was a beautiful sports skier who hailed from Czechoslovakia. A romance soon blossomed and, after a two year courtship, the couple was married. Over the next five years, Ivana was given management responsibility in a number of business ventures. She also bore trump three children – Donald Jr, Ivanka and Eric.
The vast majority of Fred Trump’s business was centered on middle income housing in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. To Donald this was small time. He wanted to break into large scale commercial real estate in the heart of the Big Apple. He set his sights on a project in Manhattan.
His target was the Commodore Hotel. The Commodore was a derelict 2,000 room white elephant on 42nd street. Trump intended to completely remodel it into an upmarket Hyatt Hotel.
The Hyatt empire was run by the Pritzker family. Despite having presences all over the States, they had no representation in New York. But the area surrounding the Commodore was extremely seedy and the Pritzkers were in need of some serious convincing.
For Donald, however, the seedy environment and the decrepit state of the hotel meant that he would be able to pick up the property at a steal. To make the purchase, however, he would need to borrow a lot of money. The finance was secured by bank loans that were underwritten by both Fred Trump and the Hyatt organization. Donald also managed to secure a 40 year tax exemption on the building. The renovation of the Commodore and its metamorphosis into the Grand Hyatt Hotel proved to be a great success, with Trump winning accolades from the city fathers, along with an award for the ‘tasteful and creative recycling of a distinguished hotel.’
The Grand Hyatt project, coupled with the reflected reputation of his father, established Donald as a legitimate player in the New York commercial real estate market.
Trump Tower and Beyond
Shortly after the completion of the Hyatt project, Trump began negotiations to develop a 58 story building on Fifth Avenue, adjacent to famous New York landmark, Tiffany & Company. This $200 million dollar development was to be Trump’s masterpiece. It would feature a six stor atrium that was lined with pink marble and an 80-foot waterfall. The Penthouse was to be Donald’s personal living quarters with his offices just below. The first couple of floors would feature the world’s most famous retailers.
The building opened in 1983 and was named Trump Tower. Its opening received international attention and was attended by a number of celebrities.
At the same time that Donald was working on Trump Tower, a local New York builder was attempting to repair derelict Wollman Skate Rink. After two and half months the work had stalemated. There was a lot of public dissatisfaction that the rink was not reopened on time. Donald interjected himself into the affair when he wrote a letter to the mayor, stating that he could supercharge the project and bring it in well under budget. The mayor called his bluff.
Donald went straight to a concreter that he had a working relationship with. He convinced him to take on the Wollman Rink project for free on the guarantee that the publicity it would bring would far outweigh the costs involved. The project went ahead on that basis and was completed under time and under budget by three quarters of a million dollars.
The publicity and public appreciation that the Wollman Rink project brought in was huge – but it was all directed toward Donald Trump. The contractor who had done all of the heavy work without payment barely got a mention.
The early 1980’s saw Trump moving into the gambling business. He acquired a gambling license and secured all of the necessary licenses then purchased a property in Atlantic City. He partnered with the Holiday Inn Corporation, the parent company of Harrah’s Casinos. In 1984, the facility opened as Harrah’s at Trump Plaza. The casino was a great success, whetting Trump’s appetite for more. He actively sought out casinos that had failed gambling licenses. Finding one in the form of the Atlantic City Hilton Hotel’s Casino, he acquired the property, spending $310 million on the purchase and upgrade. It reopened as Trump Castle.
Always wanting to go one better, Trump took over development of the largest casino in the world at the time, the Taj Mahal. The Trump Taj Mahal opened in 1990. However Trump had to go into extreme debt to open the doors. Revenues would have to average a million dollars per day in order to cover costs. This was an unheard of number and was never going to happen. Trump had to go through major bankruptcy restructuring to keep the casino going, eventually ending up with just a 10% ownership. Around this time, Trump also established Trump’s Hotels and Casino Resorts which became a publicly traded company.
Throughout the 1980’s and ‘90’s Trump never let up on his real estate developments, despite his financial problems. In 1985, he purchased 76 acres of West Manhattan in order to create a television city complex. Then, in 1988, he purchased the Plaza Hotel for $407 million. 1989 saw the first investment in Florida. By now he had also acquired a number of golf resorts across the country.
In 1992, Trump hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons when his affair with a 23-year-old actress named Marla Maples was exposed. Despite rumors, Ivana refused to believe the truth until Marla followed the Trumps on a skiing trip and confronted Ivana with the news that Donald was in love with her and that Ivana best give up on him.
That was too much for Ivana. She filed for divorce, leaving Maples free to marry Donald, which she did in 1993. They had one child together, who they named Tiffany after the famous New York department store. The marriage was rocky from the start, ending in divorce in 1999. Ironically, the proceedings were instigated by Donald when he learned that his wife was having an affair.
Donald was associated with a number of women in the early 2000’s. Back in 1998 he had met a Slovenian beauty by the name of Melania Knauss. Over the next few years their relationship developed to the point where Melania became Donald’s constant companion. They were engaged in 2004 and married on January 22nd, 2005 in Palm Beach, Florida. The couple’s only child, Barron William Trump, was born on March 20th, 2006.
On October 21st 2004, Trump Hotels, Casinos and Resorts restructured its debt, resulting in Trump’s ownership of the company dropping from 59 to 27 percent. The company applied for bankruptcy. It re-emerged as Trump Entertainment Resorts Holdings. Trump now put a premium on pushing his brand, with the Trump logo being placed on all manner of products. He even released his own board game – Donald Trump’s Real Estate Tycoon.
Trump’s political views have undergone a metamorphosis over the years. Up until 1987 he was a Democrat. However, in that year he registered for the first time as a Republican. Toying with the idea of running for office he placed full page ads in three papers espousing his views, which were that America needed to stop propping up other countries and start looking after its own people.
In October, 1999, Trump established an exploratory panel to assess the viability of his running for the Reform Party’s candidate for Presidential nominee in 2000. It was decided that his lack of profile on the West Coast would be too much of a detriment and he decided to pass on the opportunity. From that point onwards, however, he bided his time and increasingly made political comment for public consumption.
Trump the Celebrity
In 2003, Trump ventured into the world of reality television when he became the executive producer and star of The Apprentice. The show, in which contenders go through a series of challenges to win a job as Trump’s apprentice was a huge success. It propelled Donald Trump to worldwide recognition status and won him a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
Trump re-entered the political arena in 2011 when he raised questions about the legitimacy of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. He doggedly held to his view despite Obama’s insistence that he was born on US soil.
He seriously considered running for the top office in 2012, but again decided that the time wasn’t right. Then, on June 16th, 2015 he famously announced from Trump Plaza that he would be throwing his hat into the ring for the Republican nomination for President in 2016.
Few people took him seriously. But serious he was. And history will record him, for better or worse, as the 45th President of the United States.