How New York’s gossip pages helped turn a lying real estate developer into a celebrity phenom.
I have a confession to make, and please don’t shoot when you hear it: I helped make the myth of Donald Trump. And for that, I am very, very sorry.
If you worked for a newspaper in New York in the 1980s, you had to write about Trump. As editor of the New York Post’s Page Six, and later as a columnist for New York Newsday, I needed to fill a lot of space, ideally with juicy stories of the rich and powerful, and Trump more than obliged. I wrote about his real estate deals. I wrote about his wife, his yacht, his parties, his houses. At times, I would let several months go by without a single column mention of The Donald; this doubtless upset him, as he loves Page Six and used to have it brought it to him the moment it arrived in his office. But eventually I returned to the subject, as did a legion of other writers. We didn’t see it at the time, but item by inky item we were turning him into a New York icon.
…. My Trump items came from all over the place—never Trump himself—and when I called to check on something, he usually lied to me directly.
Denying facts was almost a sport for Trump, and extended even to mundane matters. While still married to his first wife, Ivana, Trump bought a mansion in Connecticut, and she decorated parts of it. Not the most earth-shattering news, but hey, everyone has slow days. When I called to confirm the purchase, Trump denied it, more than once. Sure enough, before long, he was spending weekends in the mansion, parts of which were decorated by Ivana. Did he think twice about such a seemingly pointless lie? Why would he?
So, if Trump lied all the time, why did I and other journalists continue to cover him? In hindsight, it’s easy to say, “Oh, we shouldn’t have,” but it’s not that simple. He was on the scene, like it or not, a developer who wielded real power in the city, and ignoring him would have been difficult.
Also, Trump was so outrageous—and outrageously tacky—it was a constant temptation to write about his antics, particularly because he thought he was the height of sophistication. He didn’t seem to understand, for instance, that if he wanted the respect of Manhattan’s cognoscenti, he should have left the beloved Bonwit Teller building in place on 57th Street, or at least given the bas-relief sculptures on the department store’s façade to the Metropolitan Museum, which wanted them for its collections. He smashed them to bits instead, declaring them of no artistic value, though a prominent art dealer who had agreed to appraise them said they were as significant as the Art Deco sculptures at Rockefeller Center. In 1980, down came Bonwit’s, soon to be replaced by Trump Tower.
But it was hard to sit back and watch as Trump issued one false pronouncement after another that immediately was accepted as truth. Sure, some media outlets exposed him for what he was—Spy magazine was hilariously relentless in its coverage of the “short-fingered vulgarian”—but many news operations ran verbatim what he told them. For instance, he claimed to have used his stellar deal-making skills to buy the St. Moritz hotel on Central Park South in 1985 for a bargain price of $31 million, dutifully reported by a variety of news outlets. According to a Fortune magazine article four years later, he had paid more than twice that, but, hey, who’s counting?
In the late ’80s, I wrote a book about being a gossip columnist in which I devoted half a chapter to Trump’s fondness for falsehood. And in Vanity Fair’s history of Page Six, I expressed regret about contributing to the creation of the never-ending Trump news cycle. He was, I said, “full of crap 90 percent of the time.” The next quotation in the story came from Trump himself: “I agree with her 100 percent.” I had to admire him for that unusual moment of honesty.
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