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Donald Trump: out of the temple

This article is published in issue 48 of Vanity Fair on newsstands until 28 November 2023. To celebrate our #20changes with us, read here

It’s not an escalator. “It’s the most famous escalator in the world,” Donald Trump tirelessly repeats to anyone who asks him questions about the events of June 16, 2015. That day, anchored to one of the steps of the famous gold-plated staircase, the tycoon was immortalized by dozens of photographers. Thumbs up, dressed in the colors of America, Trump launched himself into the race for the presidential election.

An eccentric candidacy, it was thought, that would change the course of history. The “most famous escalator in the world” is to the Trump Tower as the equally famous double helix staircase is to the Château de Chambord, in the Loire valley, which is said to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci. It stands in the gigantic marble atrium of the black skyscraper in Midtown Manhattan, the flagship of the Trump Organization and symbol of the omnipotence of the former president of the United States. The building is an emblem of New York capitalism, in version Bonfire of the vanities. It has become a pilgrimage destination for Trumpists and all the fierce opponents of his policies, who go there to protest. Address: 725 5th Avenue, Manhattan, exactly in the center of the world.

Yet Trump Tower may soon be lost to its famous owner. And the idea that the Trump letters, screwed onto the facade of the building, could be removed is unbearable for the Republican leader. On the 66th floor, the tower still houses his apartment decorated in the style of Versailles. But life is like this: Trump faces 91 charges and is involved in four criminal trials. There is the case of the confidential documents taken to his private residence in Florida, in defiance of the law. That of his role in the Capitol insurrection. He is also being prosecuted for denying his defeat at the polls in Georgia. The Trump Tower could be confiscated as part of one last lawsuit, this time civil: the attorney general of New York, the Democrat Letitia James (the first African-American and first woman to hold this office since January 2019) claims that the The Republican candidate’s rise to the White House was made possible thanks to a vast fraudulent operation. Over the last decade, she says, Trump and his organization have subtly inflated her assets by more than $2 billion in order to obtain bank loans and insurance discounts. A court ruling has already found him guilty. As a result, Trump lost control of some of his New York properties and his state-domiciled companies were dissolved. His back is against the wall: now only an appeal hearing remains between him and his farewell to his tower. The situation is making him nervous, even pushing him to insult Prosecutor James by calling her a “bad person”.

Trump cares very much about the building whose doors opened on November 30, 1983, sanctioned his emancipation from his father Fred. Donald Trump was 37 years old at the time, married to Ivana and building his empire in Manhattan and on the East Coast. He initially joined the family business launched by his father, a very wealthy leader in the real estate sector aimed at the middle class. But that wasn’t enough for Donald, he wanted the world of luxury. He began by renovating the Commodore Hotel on 42nd Street in the mid-1970s, renaming it the Grand Hyatt. However, his father didn’t seem very impressed. Seeing the crusade his son was embarking on, Fred Trump observed: “It’s like he’s fighting for a seat on the Titanic.” Donald was stubborn. He invested in the Plaza, a huge hotel-casino complex in Atlantic City.
But he needed a jewel, a pearl to show to the world: the opportunity presented itself in 1975 and it would take eight years for him to realize his whim.

Bas-reliefs and bulldozers

The birth of Trump Tower is mainly due to Louise Sunshine, former financial director whom Donald hired in 1974 and appointed vice president of the Trump Organization. Mrs. Sunshine was very influential, with the right connections in both political and business circles. She had excellent relations in particular with one of the main shareholders of the Genesco insurance company, which owns one of the most beautiful buildings in Manhattan, the Bonwit Teller on 5th Avenue. Before long, the blond billionaire convinced the owners to sell him the building. The Bonwit was living its last hours.

It was an Art Deco marvel and had housed a shopping mall since 1929, but bulldozers know no art. Shortly before the start of work, the Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) contacted Donald Trump and proposed that he spare the building’s bas-reliefs, depicting dance scenes, and donate them to his collections. It was the beginning of a strange story, told by New York Times: first Trump committed himself to the museum, then, as if nothing had happened, he started the demolition of the building, reducing the bas-reliefs to dust. A certain John Baron, spokesperson for the billionaire, stated that “independent experts” had reached the conclusion that “the bas-reliefs in question had no artistic value”. However, the New York newspaper had investigated: John Baron did not exist, it was a pseudonym used by Trump himself.

Every time he is reminded of this story, Donald gives the same answer: “No one was interested in those bas-reliefs before I blew them up.”

The Trump Tower story is littered with little lies. Its owner never loved the truth. In 1981, he entrusted the architecture of the building to Der Scutt, already responsible for several works in Manhattan. In the same year, the designer presented Trump with a model of his tower. Made of bronze-colored metal and glass, it should have been 202 meters tall. Less than the General Motors building a few blocks away. Trump then asks: “Isn’t it possible to make it higher?”. When they politely answer no, he insists: “Can’t you lower the General Motors Building?”

His tower, at least in his mind, would still be the tallest in the neighborhood. Trump racks his brains and devises a ruse. He considers the pink marble lobby high enough to mark the building’s first residential floor as the “30th floor” in the elevators. Thanks to mathematics, the top floor of the building thus becomes the 68th, even though in reality Trump Tower only has 58. «My Tower has 68 floors!», Donald boasts to anyone who will listen. Der Scutt, the architect, is exasperated.

The neighbors’ party

Donald Trump he also lies about the celebrities who live in his tower. In the 1980s, some stars moved to 725 5th Avenue. Universal Studios had bought a pied-à-terre for Steven Spielberg, but the director rarely set foot there. Hillary Clinton, on good terms with the billionaire, slept there from time to time. Liberace, star of the 1950s, occupied an apartment. Michael Jackson, a “friend” of Trump, lived in a duplex for 10 months in 1994. So did Bruce Willis in the 2000s. But in 1984, when the tower opened its doors, few stars arrived. So Trump made up one of his own stories: Shortly before the inauguration, he claimed that the residents included Lady Diana and Prince Charles. The young couple immediately denied it. In his 1987 best seller Trump: The Art of the Deal (published in Italy in 1989 by Sperling & Kupfer with the title Trump: the art of doing business, ed.), Donald used this story to his advantage: «The “sale that never happened” was the one that helped Trump Tower the most», he wrote.

Over the years, the stars who resided there have given way to scammers and, sometimes, outright criminals. The ousted Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier bought an apartment in 1986. He, of course, paid for it with public money. Trump has also gotten into the habit of hosting friends in trouble there. Joseph Weichselbaum, who knew the billionaire very well, was able to take advantage of his hospitality as the manager of a helicopter company that transported gamblers to the casinos managed by Trump in Atlantic City. One day, Weichselbaum was accused of drug trafficking, as sometimes happens in the world of gambling. Donald Trump then rented one of his apartments to him. Shortly before his friend pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison, Trump wrote a letter to the judge, attesting to his probity. Once he got out of prison in 1994, Weichselbaum obviously moved into Trump Tower.

Passing the tower today is an opportunity to observe a decadent relic of the 1980s. Since 2015 the building has been abandoned by celebrities. The facade has never been renovated and most of the luxury boutiques have closed their doors. Loewe, the Spanish brand that opened its first U.S. store in the tower in 1983, has moved to 611 5th Avenue. Today the pink marble atrium is occupied by Donald Trump’s official boutique, where caps can be purchased Make America Great Again worn during his first electoral campaign and a novelty: the T-shirts with the ex-president’s mug shot. And if the Trump letters will soon be removed from the facade, it doesn’t mean the Met doesn’t want to display them.

Mega palaces

1. Donald Trump at work in his office at Trump Tower in 1987.

Donald Trump in his office, at his desk, in Trump Tower, circa September, 1987.Joe McNally

2. The main entrance of the building.

MANHATTAN, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES – 08/02/2023: Marquee at the main entrance to the Trump Tower building in Manhattan. (Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)Erik McGregor/Getty Images

3. The famous escalator of the skyscraper. Designed by Der Scutt, it occupies numbers 721-725 5th Avenue, in Midtown Manhattan.

An interior view of the atrium of Trump Tower, a mixed-use skyscraper designed by Der Scutt, at 721 – 725 Fifth Avenue, between 56th and 57th Streets, in Midtown Manhattan, New York City, 1985. (Photo by Ernst Haas/Ernst Haas/Getty Images)Ernst Haas/Getty Images

4. Donald and Ivana Trump’s apartment in the tower.

The home of Donald and Ivana Trump in Trump Tower, New York, New York, October 25, 1993. (Photo by Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images)Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images


Trump was prosecuted for fraud. Letitia James, New York’s attorney general, asked for $250 million in damages. UnderSupreme Court Justice Arthur F. Engoron.

Justice Arthur F. Engoron, right, during a trial at New York State Supreme Court in New York, US, on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023. Donald Trump is facing off against New York Attorney General Letitia James in a contentious civil trial that threatens his control over his real estate empire in the state. Photographer: Mary Altaffer/AP/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesBloomberg/Getty Images

Ocean view

Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s estate in Palm Beach, also hosted his wedding reception with Melania.

UNITED STATES – JANUARY 22: Aerial view of Mar-a-Lago, the oceanfront estate of billionaire Donald Trump in Palm Beach, Fla. Trump and Slovenian model Melania Knauss will hold their reception at the mansion tonight after their nuptials at the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea. (Photo by John Roca/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images

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Source: Vanity Fair

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